Learning the Language: Social Context Clues For Expats

One of the first things my wife and I noticed when we arrived in Dublin was that being American (or presumably from anywhere else) was kind of a mixed bag of good and bad.

On the one hand, as long as we sound like Americans we’ll never truly be “from here”. But on the other hand, we get excused from certain things. We don’t have to drink tea if we don’t want to, and we aren’t expected to keep up at the pub like we would if we were Irish. Everyone knows Americans are lightweights.

But, we also reserve the right to “go all American on their asses” when we need to, and display the brash, loud, bull in a China shop insensitivity and bluntness that Americans are known for around the world. I’d feel bad about employing that tactic if it weren’t so effective, and often the only means of getting things done efficiently in Ireland. That said, if I learned to be more Irish about these things and spoke the cultural language, I’d might have to “go American” less often. And, honestly, the longer I’m here and learn more of the local language, I am also getting better at reading the social situation.

At an Irish wake (our first) a few days ago, a very kind woman asked me no less than six times if I wanted tea. She and I realized later what was going on, and we had a good laugh. She’d forgotten that when Americans say “no” to something, they mean, “no”. Not so, the Irish.

The Irish expect to be asked multiple times. It’s rude not to keep asking. So she’d assumed that I was being kind and waiting for the third or fourth ask before I finally accepted. Then she caught my accent and realized that I really did not want tea. When my host realized what was going on, I was no longer rude for not accepting, and she was no longer rude for not leaving me alone. But that level of acceptance only works when both parties speak the same social language, or least know enough vocabulary to get along.

I’m not sure why the Irish do this. But the “why” will come later; and, frankly, it almost doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that I learn to read these things, and pick up on the social context clues. And, honestly, I’m pretty thick about these things. But, like any muscle, I seem to be getting better at it the more I practice.

That’s yet another reason to travel, live abroad, and savor the experience of being from elsewhere.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

Finding the “Right” City For You


About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Dublin Life, Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Expat Living, Irish Life & Society and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Learning the Language: Social Context Clues For Expats

  1. shannon says:

    Yep – “going American” works way too well. I have had to do it far too many times but only after seriously being at my wits’ end because nothing was getting done. Great post!

  2. Chris Ogan says:

    The multiple offers comes under the heading of instrumental vs. affective styles in intercultural communication. Clearly the Irish fit the affective style–as do many Asian societies and Turkey and Middle Eastern societies. Haven’t you noticed that Pekin does that 🙂

  3. Liam says:

    Hey Glenn
    After many years in the US I now find this particular “social situation” quite annoying. Maybe America rubbed off on me more than I thought it did. The situation you describe doesn’t just occur when food and drink (any kind) is offered. I remember being taught as a kid that (from an in-the-know parent) that I’ll be offered a few pounds, and I was to say no. What a risky business, especially in a kids eyes. What if they didn’t offer a second (and third) time? But they always did.

    I don’t know the “why” either, but it’s something I’m going to have to readjust to. However, I’m not so sure if I’ll continue this part of our social language with my own kids.


    P.S. I’m glad the tea lady finally caught on, and left you alone 🙂

  4. The story of the tea really resonates with me. I’m also an American living in Dublin and my husband and I went out to dinner one night with an Irish couple we had just met. After dinner, we went to a pub. I had already had a few drinks at dinner, so didn’t need any more and was happy just to be there. The Irish woman kept asking me if I wanted a drink – over and over again – and I kept politely saying no, all the while getting really annoyed. I thought she was just being really pushy! But now I realize that probably wasn’t the case.

    Thanks for the insight. And I must say- of all the countries I’ve been to, I have yet to meet people as delightful, warm, and friendly as the Irish. I love them!

  5. Jenny says:

    I can tell you the ‘why’. Being a bad host is one of the worst social sins you can commit in Ireland (and your guest not being properly fed and watered is the sign of a bad host). It’s up there with not buying your round in the pub which is another huge social sin. It all boils down to the desire to be generous. For a long time (hundreds of years) the Irish had nothing but you never wanted to be seen to have nothing. Being generous is part of our cultural identity, this is one of our most highly desired qualities. Equally being greedy (or scabby in relation to money) is one of the worst things you can be so maybe you don’t want to accept something the first time you’re offered. I realise now as I’m explaining it how ingrained this is. I suppose that generosity is also what leads to our reputation of being so friendly.

    • Great comments and context.

      Thanks, Jenny.


    • Clionq says:

      There’s also the worry from the host that they have politely offered you refreshments, which you might want… But you don’t want to trouble them, or make them go to extra effort on your behalf so you say no. But then they don’t know if you’re saying no because you don’t want it or no because you’re being considerate. To be on the safe side they’ll ask again (which has now come to be expected so you can safely say no to be polite but still expect to be able to accept the offer on the second or third round). It might be annoying but it’s meant as a kind gesture!

  6. Padraig O Gorman. (Paddy) says:

    Hi…just saw your articles for the first time. Forgive me if I am late re. Water taps. I have two water taps. The cold one comes in directly from the mains. The second comes from the hot water cylinder…..which is fed from a water tank in the attic!!!! This is important as you don’t know what has fallen into that tank.When I visited the attic in the first house that we ever rented I discovered the skeleton of a large dead bird in the bottom of the UNCOVERED tank! Because of overflow pipes etc in the attic the tank supplying water to the toilets and hot water cylinder may not be totally covered. Personally I would not drink the water from the cold tap in a bathroom as it MAY be coming from the tank in the attic. Soo…I am wary of mixer taps.

    • HI Paddy,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog, and especially for taking the time to comment.

      So, let me get this straight. There’s an open tank in your attic with God knows what floating in it. So, rather than taking the time to seal the tank, or find away to prevent it from getting polluted, you’ll stick with the antiquated two tap system so as not to deal with the real source of the problem.

      That says everything there is to say about Irish engineering and lack of efficiency.


      • Puzzled says:

        I was told the same thing by an Irish about the ‘history’ of the two tap thing. I can understand if it is an old house (their logic seems to be: you never know what has fallen into the tank but at least the hot water tap has scalding water that would’ve boiled bacteria to death, lol), but what about the systems of the newer building blocks of apartments? Is there something with how the main plumbing of the country is built that prevents mixer taps from being used?

        I live in an apartment where a similar excuse was given but while the toilet sink has two taps, the shower is a ‘mixer’. I say ‘mixer’ because although the tap itself is a mixer type, if you have the water heater on any water that comes out will be hot, no matter if you turn it all the way to the ‘blue’ side.

      • cr says:

        So let me get this straight. A gentleman explains to you why something is the way it is and you take it as an opportunity to insult all Irish people.

        That says everything there is to say about American arrogance.


        • CR,

          Yes, absolutely. when that “explanation” is based on bad planning, antiquated engineering practice, a clearly outmoded way of thinking, and is probably not entirely true given the inconsistency with which it is applied and that it is one of a number of different excuses given to explain away a problem that people from all over the world comment on (negatively) when visiting Ireland.


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